The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds with William Blake's manuscript notes


This three-volume book contains a large number of essays on art by the major 18th-century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), who became the first president of the Royal Academy. There is also a biographical account of Reynolds by Edward Malone.

This copy was owned by the artist and poet William Blake, who annotated the book with his own manuscript notes. 

What was William Blake’s view of Reynolds?

There seems to have been some personal antipathy between Blake and Reynolds. The older artist reached the top of his profession, becoming an important cultural figure in his lifetime. However, for the struggling artist Blake, Reynolds was a symbol of lazy, generalised and academic art. On the page that describes the death of Reynolds (p. cix) Blake writes:

When Sr Joshua Reynolds died
All nature was degraded;
The King dropped a tear into the Queen’s ear;
And all his Pictures Faded.

What do the margin notes reveal of Blake’s thinking?

On p. xcviii of Mallone’s biography Blake has written ‘To generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit – general knowledges are those knowledges that idiots profess’. Elsewhere he writes ‘All sublimity is founded on minute discrimination’. This focus on very close composition and selection is reflected in the Blake Notebook, which shows a continuous process of revision and rejection. The number and extent of changes in the text show Blake as a meticulous worker, and regardless of the merit of his views of Reynolds, his sense of the process of looking as an artist is the same as his precision as a writer.

Full title:
The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds ... Copious MS. notes [by William Blake.]
1798, London
Book / Manuscript annotation
Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Blake
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British Library

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